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St. Paul’s – Advent 3 – 12/11/22

Today is the third Sunday of Advent. Year A focuses on the Gospel of Matthew….The Christmas story is told from Jospeh’s point of view in Matthew while Luke focuses on Mary. I thought since the lectionary sneeks Mary in through the Magnificat in place of the psalm…we willfocus on Mary. As we do so, there is a liability of having heard the Christmas story over and over again. We know how it turns out. And so there is no way to recapture the initial shock of the news: that God is coming in the flesh to show us what real life looks like.

For the past couple of weeks, John the Baptist has been the messenger of that news. And that message might not be heard as all that good. There has been a lot of talk about axes, pitchforks, and unquenchable fires. There has been the suggestion that we are snakes in the grass – vipers to be exact – who only seek god when our own snake pits are on fire. So it is a real relief to hear from a different messenger–not John the Baptist but Mary the prophet, who will also turn out to be Marry the mother of Jesus, but not yet. Today she is still a maiden, chosen by God to bear a message before she ever bears a child.

Her cousin Elizabeth is the first one willing to listen. She too is pregnant, Luke says, about 6 months further along than Mary and much, much older – so old, in fact, that her impending motherhood is as much a miracle as Mary’s. So she and Mary have a lot in common. The obvious difference is that in Elizabeth’s case, there is a biological father hanging around – Zechariah by name, a priest in the order of Abidjan who has not said a word in months.

We almost never hear his story in church, which is too bad, since he and Mary have something in common too. According to Luke, they both have been visited by the angel Gabriel, who went to tell Zechariah about his and Elizabeth’s baby-to-be before he ever went to tell Mary about hers. Unfortunately, Zechariah’s annunciation did not go as  well as Mary’s did. When the angel told Zachariah that Elizabeth would bear a son whose name would be John, Zechariah said, How will I know this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years. For this apparent impertinence, the angel zipped Zechariah’s lips, making him mute until the day he heard his son cry out for the first time.

Six months later, when Gabriel told Mary that she would bear a son, she said more or less the same thing. How can this be, since I am a virgin? And for some reason, the angel went easier on her. He told her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, that the power of the Most High would overshadow her, and instead of asking any more questions, she said, Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.

So when she goes to visit Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary can still speak, while all he can do is wave. Poor Zechariah. It is all women’s voices in the house that day. First Mary, greeting her cousin Elizabeth, and then Elizabeth, who does not say what she says next, the way we make it sound in church, but who exclaims with a loud cry, Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why is Elizabeth talking so loudly? Because she is excited that Mary has come to see her. Because her own baby has jumped for joy inside of her. Because there is new life popping out all over and she is so glad her young cousin has the good sense to believe that what is happening to her is not an accident, nor an illusion, nor a freak of nature, but a wedding gift from God.

After Elizabeth lets loose, it is Mary’s turn again. You would think that at a time like this she would settle down with Elizabeth and compare notes on their appetites, their mood swings, their morning sickness, their backaches and swelling feet. Elizabeth was ahead of Mary, after all. She could have warned her about some things and given her some others to look forward to, but instead of the elder women sharing her wisdom with the younger,. it is the younger who enlightens the elder, launching into a prophecy we repeat to this day.

My soul magnifies the Lord, Mary sings right there in Elizabeth’s living room, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior. Elizabeth and Zechariah are the first to hear her song, although it is not just for them. It is also for her, Mary, and for the Might One who has done great things for her. It is for Gabriel, who first gave her the good news, and for all who will benefit from it–for the proud and the powerful who will be relieved of their swelled heads, for the hungry who will be filled with good things, for the rich who will be sent away empty so they have room room in them for more than money can buy. Her song is for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–for Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel–for every son and daughter of Israel who thought God had forgotten the promise to be with them forever, to love them forever, to give them fresh and endless life.

It was all happening inside Mary, and she was so sure of it that she was singing about it ahead of time–not in the future tense but in the past, as if the promise had already come true. Prophets almost never get their verb tenses straight, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as god sees it–not divided into things that are  already over and things that have not happened yet, but as an eternally unfolding mystery that surprises everyone—possibly even God.

In this divine dance, we are all dancing, God may lead but it is entirely up to us whether we will follow. Just because God sends an angel to invite one girl unto the dance floor is no guarantee she will say yes. Just because God sends a prophet to tell us how life on earth can be more like life in heaven does not mean any of us will quit our day jobs to make it so. God acts. Then it is our turn. god responds to us. Then it is our turn again.

The only thing that is absolutely sure in this scenario  is that we have a partner who is with us and for us and who wants us to have life. Mary’s trust in that fact is really all she has. What she does not have is a sonogram, or a husband or an affidavit from the Holy Spirit that says, The child is mine. Now leave that poor girl alone. All she has is her unreasonable willingness to believe that the God who has chosen her will be part of whatever happens next–ands that, apparently, is enough to make her burst into song. She does not wait to see how things will turn out first. She sings ahead of time, and all the angels with her.

And so we might ask…

What if Mary was not particularly pious or virtuous,

but simply willing to hear the Word:

You have found favor with God.

What if all that’s needed to ignite a miracle

is the willingness to accept God’s favor?

What if to bring salvation to the world all God needs of us

is to receive God’s delight in us?

To imagine God’s saving grace growing within us.

To trust God’s tender regard for us

despite our lowliness, despite our undeserving;

despite all the hardships and struggles,

even the sin and despair, to trust God’s joy?

Not that we are better, only that we are beloved.

What if all God asks of us is

to say Yes to God’s Yes?

To hear God’s hope for us

and to reply with all our hearts,

Let it be with me according to your word.

If there are any big changes going on with you right now–if something is underway you cannot predict the end of, and your stomach is rolling with your own version of morning sickness–then you might try following Mary’s lead. Who knows? Maybe the Holy Spirit has come upon you. Maybe the shadow hanging over you is the power of the most high.

While it would certainly be nice to have some details about how it will turn out, that is not really necessary, is it? You know how God has acted in the past, and you know what happens when people say, Yes, thanks, I’d love to dance. Given all of that, I don’t know why you should wait to get excited until you knew for sure how it all turned out.

You seem to me like just the kind of people who would bump into each other getting out on the dance floor before the n]band leader ever showed up. You seem to me just like the kind of people who would start singing ahead of time.

May your souls magnify the Lord, and your spirits rejoice in God your Savior. For he has looked with favor on you, and all generations will call you blessed. For the Mighty One has done great things for you and holy is his name.